The torture and emptiness of psychological hoarding

Humans are imbued with a competitive spirit. And as a result, we like to count our victories.

There are an infinite number of possibilities in human experience. And when the possibility of death looms over us, the sudden fear that we might not have done everything we might have creates immense distress. This “range” or “number” idea rarely has the effect it is supposed to have. Every kind of sex, every kind of position, every kind of lover, every kind of drug-almost never leads to a feeling of satisfaction. If anything, in my experience, the most positive response I’ve had from people who pursue this kind of life is “been there, done that” suggesting that the experience is really not worth repeating, and in fact, does little to assuage the fear of dying.

I am writing this to remind us that when we are victims of “another one under my belt” thinking, we may be missing out on more important dimensions of life and a growth process that will be too late to start after that 100th pseudo-victory. I call this “pseudo-victory collection” psychological hoarding and contend that it arises from an anxiety about “meaning” and mortality.

Who are the usual victims of psychological hoarding? People prone to psychological hoarding are usually unable to be committed to their own depth (which probably includes most of us.) Anyone who has engaged in meditation would testify to the “lighter” nature of being that is in fact not in control of death or dying and more in celebration of itself. This state of “mind” is actually very frightening to most people, and as a result, we distract ourselves from plumbing our own depths and instead look to “collecting” as a sign of progress. I have nothing against collecting per se – I understand its compelling nature – but I do have something against it when it obstructs depth processes that bring us the actual rewards for which we are searching.

My support of “depth processes” like the kinds that meditation confer upon us, are that they introduce us to creative consciousness and meaning. They also frighten us though, and this automatic fear and threat is what draws most people away from this zone of being. What we learn from depth processes is that our possibilities for meaning are more than we might have imagined, and that we need not be as stuck as we are, or committed to rational thinking to solve our processes. All that is not rational need not be irrational. Non-rational thought can introduce us to problem solving way beyond the capabilities of our rational minds. And “under my belt” thinking does not get us to this place. In fact, it delays the time to getting there.

If the idea of “creative consciousness” seems to abstract, consider how David Lynch, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Moby and Russel Simmons all attributed meditation to their success. They are talking about how meditation puts us in sync with creation because when we still the mind we find a more compelling nature of ourselves with which we can identify. The problem is – this process is not as easy as beginners think it is – and when we delve into it, the sheer unknown quality of this way of being is associated with death. People flee from this zone back to their belts and their hoarding habits. The paradox is that “under my belt” thinking actually limits success and slows down what you actually can acquire in life.

I want to clarify that I am not judgmental about this. I see it as a natural place to hide. But I think that we all stand to gain more from realizing our follies in this thinking if we want to expedite our successes. Falling from grace need not cause a lifetime of regret. But we need not make it a justifiable habit either. I recommend not listening to me — or this expert or another — but really to yourself. For when you hear the sounds of the creative process, the torture and emptiness of psychological hoarding will lose its charm.

Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He blogs at Debunking Myths of the Mind.

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  • Benjamin Atkinson

    I am a novice to meditation and would like to understand more about the psychological mechanics of this practice.

    To me, it seems that meditation or mindfulness is a tool for avoidance. By focusing on the present moment, are we not distracting ourselves from our finitude?

    Physical health benefits aside, is meditation more effective at resolving the ‘vital lie’ than faith in God? Or, is it an simply an alternative coping mechanism for the Agnostic? Ernest Becker suggested that the only durable treatment for our mortality was ‘an anchor in eternity’.

    How does meditation transcend our mortality?

    Thanks for the interesting post.


  • Lisa Chu, MD

    LOVE the metaphor of psychological hoarding. Take a look in your closets and you’ll most likely find physical evidence of the mental clutter that keeps us imprisoned in the illusion of permanence, stability, and security of our hyperstructured lives.

    In fact, stepping back and observing our lives with compassionate, kind eyes will usually reveal that we organize our lives in an elaborate scheme to avoid our fears. These fears came from the conditioning of our families, cultures, schools, and other systems. We hold them near and dear – almost sacred – because to disbelieve them would mean alienating ourselves from the communities that raised us.

    If you’ve never experienced loss, most likely you are afraid of it, and therefore try to cling to what you have and control circumstances to the point where your ego feels safe in its prison of beliefs.

    Meditation and other contemplative practices can be used for further avoidance and escaping from the truth, but it can also be used as a powerful tool to let go. To disbelieve the lies that govern our actions is one of the scariest prospects for the ego, but is the necessary step to liberation.

    Maybe the collapse of the health care system will bring about a mass wave of letting go…can’t wait to see what the rebirth will bring!

  • gerridoc

    As a physician, I cared for many elderly patients who found it difficult to “downsize” to a simpler, more manageable scale. They lived in 1 room of a large multi-story house, which was falling into disrepair because the inhabitant could no longer maintain the dwelling or its contents.
    I am reminded by a Tolstoy story entitled: “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” In the story, a peasant is given the opportunity to obtain land for ownership, which would be determined by how much ground he could cover by walking from sunrise to sunset. The man sets out to cover the largest amount of acreage he can possibly obtain during daylight hours, and pushes himself to the point of exhaustion. He dies as the sun sets, and is buried in a six foot plot.
    For me that story epitomizes “pseudo-victory.”

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